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Town Without Pity 

A Deep South in the East Bay

Wednesday, Mar 22 2006
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In 1972, 8-year-old Brian Copeland and his family moved to San Leandro, a blue-collar suburb of muscle cars and steady, union incomes tucked in the eastern center of the San Francisco Bay Area. Unlike Oakland and Berkeley, its more liberal neighbors to the north, San Leandro was the kind of whites-only community discussed in James W. Loewen’s recent study Sundown Towns — the kind that defiantly thrust up its middle finger against the Rumford Fair Housing Act and the 1967 Supreme Court ruling that struck down real estate discrimination. Copeland and his family were black — virtually the only African-Americans for miles — yet somehow got a landlord to rent an apartment to them.

Copeland’s solo show, Not a Genuine Black Man, a long-running hit in San Francisco, is a funny and forgiving memoir of growing up African-American in a town that stationed a cop car at its city limits to keep blacks from entering. Early on, when little Brian leaves his new home to seek a playground, he is immediately set upon by angry white teens, only to be saved by a cop who’s itching to arrest him for the crime of carrying a baseball bat. These and other anecdotes will shock many with the realization of how much parts of Northern California resembled the Deep South only a few decades ago; certainly, those of us who grew up in the Bay Area will remember how our elders suavely referred to Oakland as Nigger Town and Louisville sluggers as “nigger knockers.” But Copeland, a successful comedian and talk-radio personality, has other things on his mind besides recalling family history. He is perplexed and angered by the criteria used to determine who is a “genuine” black man (pimps, thugs and nearly anyone else celebrated in gangsta rap) and who is dissed and dismissed for Uncle Tom–ism (black men who stick with their wives, hold jobs and don’t talk back to movie screens or pronounce “ask” as “ax”). Copeland says other blacks frequently lump him into the latter category, and before long, even mostly white audiences will uneasily wonder if we find his delivery engaging and personality likable because neither threatens us. We know one thing, though: Copeland’s violent, womanizing father, who disappears for years on end, makes us feel plenty uncomfortable — and threatened. Copeland makes it plain how black society judges a father who beats his mother and sees little Brian as an oedipal threat.

Copeland takes things a step further, though. In one part of the evening, after the landlord has served an eviction notice on the Copelands for being “too large” a family (a transparently bogus claim), Brian meets the successful black attorney who has filed suit on their behalf. Brian hears an inspiring story from this lawyer, who tells him about losing his brother to racist violence in Birmingham, Alabama. Years later, however, when Bill Clinton nominates this same attorney, James Ware, for a judgeship, his story is exposed as a plagiarized memory, leading Copeland to question the fronts and affronts that black men contrive to win credibility.

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Throughout the evening, Copeland impersonates a long cast list of characters, including his mother, his grandmother, cops and various kids and neighbors. Director David Ford allows Copeland’s standup persona to narrate the story, and at times this makes the performer a little too agreeable. Listening to Copeland’s affable, self-effacing AM-radio voice, you can’t help but wonder how his potentially incendiary material might have sounded had it been filtered through a more conceptual performance along the lines of, say, Roger Guenveur Smith’s nightmarish characterization of a Black Panther Party co-founder in A Huey P. Newton Story. We can only guess at the effect of Copeland’s stories if he chose to go deadpan where he now laughs or bled the silences he now fills with chuckles.

Also, at 110 minutes, Not a Genuine Black Man feels long because its author tries to pack too much baggage into one evening. Copeland’s show, nevertheless, remains an impressive accomplishment of storytelling, a tale of adversity by a man who refuses to play the victim or point fingers, yet who can never resist a joke. “I don’t believe in reparations,” he says, “but I’ll cash the check.”?

NOT A GENUINE BLACK MAN | Written and performed by BRIAN COPELAND | At the Hayworth, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. ?| Through April 1 | (213) 389-9860

Pine City, Minnesota, sounds like one of those small Midwestern towns whose very names we’re used to snickering at, thanks to Hollywood’s painting them as the kind of drowsy burgs where people will gather to watch a man change a tire. The city’s government Web site gives us no reason to suspect otherwise: “A park on the north bank of the Snake River,” crows the site, “offers boat and fishing piers, picnic facilities, and a gazebo shelter and is the site of the huge redwood statue of a voyageur.” Brainerd without the intrigue, we think, remembering the Paul Bunyan statue in Fargo. Still, it’s where playwright Craig Wright locates several of his dramas, including Orange Flower Water, now running at the Victory Theater Center. If, as poet Philip Larkin wrote, “Nothing, like something, happens anywhere,” Wright skillfully makes Pine City the Lutheran “anywhere” in which adultery and recriminations quietly explode.

The story’s fulcrum is a center-stage bed, that place where life, death and a whole in-between occur. Cathy and David (Ann Noble and Robert Poe) are a married couple, but it’s not them we find in the sheets together. With Cathy away on business, David is making motel time with Beth (Julie Quinn). Their verbal foreplay is embarrassingly realistic in the lightheaded idealism and neurotic doubts the two express about the path they have set out on. David is convinced that he and Beth made the biggest mistakes of their lives by marrying their current spouses. He doesn’t repeat this opinion too loudly, however, when he later runs into Beth’s brutish husband, Brad (Tim Sullens), at their kids’ soccer match. Wright gives us a tight, menacing scene, as Brad, who works in a video store and divines in Cathy’s rental choices a pussy-whipped husband, tries to goad David into rating different women in the bleachers, eventually cornering him to choose — just for fun — between their two wives.

When the awful truth eventually comes out, no one acts pretty, least of all Brad, who rages and blubbers — and then finks out Beth and David to Cathy. Yet it’s in Brad’s behavior that we will see our own possible choices, and it’s in Sullens’ heart-wrenching performance that this production, directed by Carri Sullens, finds its voice. There’s not a single false note sounded by Sullens’ betrayed Brad, and the latent violence boiling beneath his pain never allows us to take the play’s course for granted.

Unfortunately, Wright’s 85-minute one-act nosedives in its last scene, set a few years later — a hollow, Hallmarky monologue in which David composes a letter to be read sometime in the future by his and Beth’s young daughter. It’s full of affectionate hindsight and a sense of bad grownups fessing up and atoning for their wickedness — more or less by proclaiming kids to be the only reasons we ever crawl into bed together. It’s also one of those examples of adults living through their children instead of their own decisions and relationships, and is meant to make this runaway dad and his home-wrecking lover more palatable.

The problem is that Wright doesn’t have to sell us anymore on the idea that the world is filled with mismatched couples. We completely sympathized with David’s exit strategy as soon as the play opened on Cathy’s monologue, the dopey I-wuv-you note she composed to him before leaving town; and Brad’s soccer-game antics already made a persuasive case for giving a get-out-of-jail card to Beth for committing murder, let alone adultery. Perhaps at this point Wright should have spared us the closure and simply left the two couples’ story to hang in the prairie wind; another Larkin verse, certainly, would describe Wright’s purpose just as well as David’s epistle:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad

They may not mean to, but they do.

ORANGE FLOWER WATER | By CRAIG WRIGHT | At Victory Theater Center, 3324 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank | Through April 23 | (818) 841-5422

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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